You Are What You Love 8 : the demanding vocation of teaching for formation

9781587433801This is the final post on Jamie Smith’s sparklingly written You Are What You Love (YAWYL for short).

I say sparkling since it shines with elegant prose that simultaneously delivers original, creative and often dazzling insights.

And he’s on top form when it comes to teaching for formation.

Smith talks about his becoming a heretic regarding teaching at higher level. He was coming at it from post-graduate study, implictly assuming that his 18 year old students were “graduate-students-in-waiting.” As a teacher his was never to impose on their independence (and culturally accepted goal “to become prodigious consumers”)

Smith’s ‘conversion’ was to realise that his approach to teaching these young people was inimical to formation. They were not remotely ready suddently to be who he had assumed they were. His ‘heresy’ was to come to the point where he saw teaching as having “a sense of what the students ought to be.”

Smith does not reference Stanley Hauerwas here, but he has much to say on this theme (as with many others – and that’s meant at a compliment!).

“As a way to challenge such a [liberal] view of freedom, I start my classes by telling my students that I do not teach in a manner that is meant to help them make up their own minds. Instead, I tell them that I do not believe they have minds worth making up until they have been trained by me. I realize such a statement is deeply offensive to students since it exhibits a complete lack of pedagogic sensitivities. Yet I cannot imagine any teacher who is serious who would allow students to make up their own minds.”

‘Christian Schooling or Making Students Dysfunctional?’ in Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified. Bloomsbury T&T Clark 2nd Edition. 2016

But this of course is a whole new ball game compared to most higher education for it immediately involves the teacher in a much higher and demanding goal – the formation of people of virtue.

Since education is a formative project, aimed at the Good, the True and the Beautiful, then the teacher is a steward of transcendence who needs not only to know the Good but also to teach from that conviction. (159)

And yet most teachers have gone through their own formation process – an intensive secular “novitate”. One that assumes education is ‘for’ very specific things:

implicit in the dominant models of education is a modern, secuarlist narrative that prizes autonomy as the ultimate good. Thus the goal of education is reduced to “critical thinking,” which only turns out to be an empty, vacuous way of saying that education will simply enable young people to choose whatever “good” they see fit. In this picture, “freedom” requires the loss of a telos, since any stipulation of “the Good” impinges on the autonomy of the individual. In other words, such a model of education actually precludes virtue. (159)

This is of direct and urgent relevance into the UK and Irish university sector, just as much as in the USA. Pragmatism, employability, value for money, and raising as much income from students (and their families) as possible is what education is in danger (or has already) of becoming all about. An instrumental vision of education as purely a means to an end.

These depressing programmes (no longer available online) on ‘Queen’s: A University Challenged’ were broadcast on the BBC on the decline of Queen’s University of Belfast. A combination of a lack of Govt funding and ruthlessly pragmatic educrats who value education only by its monetary worth are eviserating the original vision of a once fine University.

Rather than academic life being valued by how much funding the teacher can attract, what if the primary task of the teacher is to be a former of people? And if this is the case, teachers first need be formed themselves. In other words, says Smith, educational reform begins with the teachers.

Smith offers some practical suggestions for (Christian) faculty development:

  • be committed to communities of formative Christian worship
  • build communal (team) practices
    • eat together
    • pray together
    • sing together
    • live life together – rejoice and grieve and walk with one another.
    • think and read together (It’s actually this one that is the most difficult. Business is ever demanding – there is rarely time to share ideas, discuss and learn what each member of the teaching team has been learning and reading and writing, visit each other’s classes to hear another teacher’s heart and passion (not just teaching ability).
  • Serve students – lead by example. Show hospitality. Pray for them and with them.

I’m very glad to be part of a team and work in a College that does much of this – that students and observers continually notice the depth of community and warmth of relationships at work. Smith would say (rightly) that such a context does not happen by accident – it is a habit that takes practice (and can’t be taken for granted).

 

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